When I went into the film Defendor I expected to see a quirky Mystery Men-type film about a wannabe superhero. Instead I got an emotionally real, depressing look at a man with a heart of gold and a head full of problems.
Woody Harrelson plays Arthur Poppington — a mentally challenged man who wears a duct-taped “D” on his chest and goes by the moniker “Defendor” (spelling mistake intentional). He attempts to clean up the streets of a town nicknamed “The Hammer” (yes, the movie was filmed in Hamilton) by busting up bad guys with marbles, lime juice, jars full of bees, and a trench bat from WWII that his grandfather gave him. His arch nemesis is “Captain Industry” — an idea of a person who controls the drug and prostitution ring and not an actual living being. The police, especially dirty undercover cop Chuck Dooney (Elias Koteas), don’t like Arthur’s vigilantism as he’s interfering with an investigation of theirs. One night while out on the prowl for baddies, he’s beaten and left for dead by Chuck and a biker gang, only to be saved by a drug addict prostitute by the name of Kat (Kat Dennings). The two become friends and for her own reasons she makes him believe that “Captain Industry” is actually a local drug kingpin.
The performances in Defendor are all solid, especially Harrelson who deserves an Oscar nomination for his work in this much more than his work in The Messenger (opening next week). He imbues Arthur with a child-like persona that makes you feel for him and believe in him. At one point I found myself hoping he did have superpowers so that people would leave him alone. Dennings, who I’ve only seen do comedies like Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist up until this point, blew me away in her role. She’s one of the most talented young actresses working today and comes across as a mix between Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted and Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Koteas is also a perfect fit, as is Michael Kelly in the role of Arthur’s only real friend Paul, and Sandra Oh as a psychiatrist working with Arthur.
Canadian actor Peter Stebbings wrote and directed Defendor and it’s quite evident that he’s a filmmaker with unique vision and creativity. Sadly it’s doubtful this film will catch on with the masses, especially those looking for more of a comedy as I was. I do hope people give it a chance though because in the end, like its main character, it means well and has a lot of heart.
*** out of 5 stars
Top image: A scene from Defendor. Courtesy Alliance Films.